My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is an astonishing achievement. It is a beautiful and compelling consideration of art and life. It is an evocatively written literary novel, yet at the same time a readable thriller that will keep readers anxiously turning the pages (all 775 of them) until the end. Sometimes, it’s also a bit of a sprawling mess. But once begun, I could never have walked away from The Goldfinch. Despite its flaws, I can’t give it any less than a 5 star rating; it is the most memorable piece of fiction I have read in a year, and I believe it will continue to be read many decades from now.
The novel begins with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and his mother, interrupted by sudden tragedy when a terrorist bomb blasts through the museum. Theo’s mother is killed, but Theo survives, and emerges from the confusion of the blast with a small painting that was handed to him by a dying older man. The painting is “The Goldfinch,” a masterwork by 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, and Theo holds onto it while he is sent first to live with a friend’s WASPy family on Park Avenue, and then to Las Vegas to live with his drunk and gambling father. In a ghostly, almost sinister exurb, Theo meets Russian teen Boris, and they forge a deep, drug-fueled bond over their loneliness and misery. Years later, Theo returns to New York and becomes an antique furniture dealer. Still carrying the painting with him—and wracked by guilt because he has not returned it—Theo finds himself immersed in a dangerous scheme with underworld art thieves.
Here is an image of the actual painting, painted by Fabritius in 1654 and soon on display again at the newly renovated Mauritshuis museum in the Netherlands:
The painting of the little chained goldfinch symbolizes, to Theo, all of his losses--his mother, his life in New York, his innocence—but also, perhaps, his own survival and his hope for the future. Themes of art, morality, survival, fate, obsession, and friendship abound in this novel. Tartt explores these with depth and sensitivity. Most especially, for me, the themes of identity and redemption emerged as the some of the strongest—who are we, who do we become, and how do we forgive ourselves for our failures and transgressions? Tartt writes movingly of grief, as well; Theo’s deep grief for his mother is palpable, and this thoroughly connects the reader to the emotionally damaged boy’s fate.
The Goldfinch struck me as very much a 9/11 story. Tartt’s account of Theo’s experience in the disorienting aftermath of the bomb, while he waits for a rescue that doesn’t arrive, is gripping and intense. Although the bomb at the Met is a fictional terrorist attack, it powerfully calls to mind the experience of those trapped in the Twin Towers. Theo is unmoored by the experience, and his psychological wounds take a decade to heal; perhaps, in a way, Theo is like New York itself as it struggles to find its footing after the tragedy.
Tartt’s homage to Dickens is clear and has been well-noted by many reviewers—the orphan making his way in a cruel world, the dodgy villains and thieves, the kindly father figure Theo finds in Hobie, who seems like a man plucked from the 19th century. The meandering plot and large number of characters are, indeed, highly Dickensian. But I was far more attuned to The Goldfinch’s references to Russian literature. Throughout, it has a certain Russian tone and mood; Theo’s very name is an Anglicized version of Fyodor (as in Dostoyevsky himself), and there is, of course, the inescapable Russianness of Boris. Theo’s guilty soliloquies and his crippling existential angst are reminiscent of Crime and Punishment, while the drunks and gamblers and the tortured prince trying to do good bring to mind The Idiot.
So let me turn to The Goldfinch’s flaws. Yes, at 775 pages, it IS too long. And I don’t say that simply because I think the length turns off some readers, but because I truly believe this novel would be stronger trimmed by about 200 pages. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the editor who cut Tartt’s prose, but characters sometimes ramble on in monologues and there are excessive, almost list-like descriptions. The novel drags noticeably in its third quarter. A tighter, more focused, and cohesive Goldfinch would ultimately have made for a better book.
I also struggled with Theo’s obsessive, unrequited love for Pippa. If Tartt hadn’t told me repeatedly that Theo loved Pippa, I wouldn’t have seen it. I felt their connection as children who had experienced a tragedy together, but Tartt never showed me the growth of Theo’s love for her.
But flaws and all, The Goldfinch represents a stunning artistic achievement for Donna Tartt, and it is deserving indeed of all the acclaim and literary awards, including the 2014 Pulitizer Prize for Fiction. For those who read literary fiction, it shouldn’t be missed. And I hope we won’t have to wait another decade for the next work from Tartt.
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